Monthly Archives: June 2013

Protagonists, Goals, and Conviction

Let’s talk about the characters in The Last of Us. Because I still want to talk about that game. For the sake of direction, we’ll focus on Joel and Ellie, because they’re the protagonists (and arguably each other’s antagonist) and you spend nearly eighteen hours with them.

 

I’m going to try to keep this mostly spoiler-free, but since this’ll be discussing characters and arcs and development, be warned of mentions and implications and stuff. If you’re playing the game right now or are planning to in the near future, might be best to avoid this.

 

So. Characters.

 

The dynamic of Joel and Ellie is not like Batman/Robin’s hero/sideckick or even a sort of Riggs/Murtaugh case of contrasting partners. Sure, they have their joint task of getting Ellie to the Fireflies, but there’s nothing personal to that; it’s what they’ve been told to do. That hardly makes for interesting characters. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So what do Joel and Ellie want?

 

Ellie’s goal is made clear in early conversations: she wants her life to be for something; she doesn’t want to just exist. Like all good goals, it sheds a lot of light on her character. See, Ellie was born after the outbreak, she’s used to a world where people have resigned themselves to the bleak status quo (and eventual death). She wants more than that.

 

Joel’s goal is more fluid. At the outset, he’s content to just get by. Enter Ellie, the other protagonist. She’s serves as his antagonist just as he does hers; she interferes with his life and forces him to find a new goal and he is the catalyst for her ability to journey after her goal. Joel can no longer live just for the sake of surviving, he has to change. There are no other candidates for an antagonist in the game; the Infected, hunters, and other enemies are exactly that: enemies without personification. Eventually, Joel does change and he does achieve his new goal, he finds a new reason to live.

 

What complicates this is that Ellie’s goal cannot coexist with Joel’s new goal. Joel now wants to protect Ellie best he can, but this protection means that Ellie cannot do the thing she thinks she might be meant to do. Now we see Joel as Ellie’s antagonist in full. There’s tension in the dynamic but no enmity; rather it’s iron sharpening iron as Joel and Ellie rub off on each other and challenge the other to do more as they forge their pseudo-father/daughter relationship.

 

The Last of Us, however, merrily subverts any innate expectation a player might have of that dynamic. Ellie doesn’t sit around waiting for Joel to save her: she’ll often stab people in the back or save Joel from a dead end. But, like Elena and Chloe from Naughty Dog’s other PS3 games, Ellie’s not just there for support or a sort of surrogate daughter but a strong character in her own right. Her cheerfulness masks a strong sense of survival’s guilt (which, again, stems from her want). She’s used to the violence littering the post-apocalyptic world but she’ll still wince at Joel’s brutality. Neil Druckmann wrote a character who’s incredibly interesting, and, yes, happens to be a woman in a video game. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that she’s never portrayed patronizingly or as an act of affirmative action. More so than Joel, Ellie has a sense of personal direction for much of the game. Though she’s not quite sure where she’s going, she has a conviction about her life.

 

Interestingly, Joel lacks much of this conviction. More interestingly, he’s the character you play as for almost the entirety of the game. In The Last of Us you only play as a character when their conviction is shaken and they’re not entirely sure what they should do. Often Joel’s not even sure how to get somewhere and is following someone else’s lead. He’s listless and without any driving force for much of the game. He’s looking for a reason to survive, remember?

 

Contrast this with Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s going after the treasure or saving the world (he’s a little sketchy on the how) or Halo’s Master Chief who has a very clear direction of defeat the bad guys and save the world. This is what sets The Last of Us apart: the perennial “what now?” And where do we see this the most? In the characters: the complex, layered characters of The Last of Us.

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With Regards To Capes

In Man Of Steel Superman has lost his usual red underwear. Well, more he never has it in the first place in this adaption. It’s no wonder why, no one, not even Batman, wears their underwear outside anymore.

That said, Superman still has his cape, something that’s seemingly as much an artifact as the underwear thing. Yes, Thor and Loki both have capes, but they’re demigods. Batman’s cape is explained away as serving not only the effect he creates but a utilitarian purpose as well. Hardly anyone wears capes these days. In The Incredibles, the first superhero deconstruction you saw if you’re my age, Edna Mode goes to great lengths to explain the impracticality of capes in a morbidly comedic sequence.

So why does Superman still have his bright red cape? It’s doesn’t make much sense (see Edna Mode’s list for reasons), yet it’s part of his costume and and he doesn’t rip it off. More importantly, why did the filmmakers choose to keep the cape? It’s iconic, sure, but nothing is sacred in adaptions. Here’s the deal: capes are heroic. There’s the image of the kid with the towel tied round his neck pretending to be a superhero. That’s Superman. He’s the Boy Scout, the Kansas-bred all-American hero.

And his cape is an integral part of that. Look at the use of capes in the film. General Zod, when we first see him, is wearing a cape. It doesn’t take long, however, for him to shrug it off and, of course, become the villain he is. When we first see Superman in his outfit we first see his red boots and red cape. When Superman meets the military, we once again focus on his cape. His cape is what sets him apart. Zod doesn’t have a cape, nor do any of his followers; but Jor-El, Superman’s father, does. It’s a beautiful visual cue, one that speaks to the basis of our pop culture mythology: the person wearing the cape is a good guy, a hero.

Such is Superman: he’s the archetypical superhero. The cape-wearing, evil-fighting man in tights. Contrast him to Joel, from The Last of Us (because that game is amazing and bears referencing). Joel is not a hero, he’s not even a good guy. Joel is a desperate man who’s more than willing to do horrible things. Joel is a survivor, he acts solely to survive and protect his own interests. Superman, conversely, simply is good and will protect anyone.

So where do we get a narrative? Joel’s comes from challenging his interests and upsetting his status quo to see how he reacts. The narrative/arc is clear from the onset, though Naughty Dog makes several bold choices with where to take it. Superman has no obvious arc. He’s invincible and infallible; any impending doom or moral dilemma lacks tension because we know Superman can’t be hurt and will always do right. After all, he’s wearing a cape. So where does the narrative tension come from? How does Man of Steel craft a story that doesn’t undermine his character but still delivers an engaging story?

The movie addresses the question of the cape. The story’s primary tension comes not from Superman vs. Zod, but rather within Superman himself. Clark Kent must become Superman… Or must he? The Clark Kent we meet is a Clark Kent divided. He has these powers, but should he use them? How should he use them? There lies the conflict; the tension is the question of should Clark Kent wear the cape or hide in anonymity. Granted, we already know the answer, but it’s a far more interesting arc than “will he survive?”. Once that question is answered, however, a new one arises: to what lengths will Superman go in pursuit of what the cape means? How far will Superman go to protect someone?

Zack Snyder has described Man of Steel as the least ironic movie he’s made. It might be the most honest recent superhero movie besides Captain America, there’s no attempt to give Superman the dark and gritty treatment so common in our era of antiheroes. Where The Last of Us gives us an antihero who rings closer to a villain, Man of Steel presents a hero with no doubt of his goodness. So Superman wears a cape.

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A Grownup Video Game

Something big came out on Friday. It was produced by a legendary team known for their amazing work. No, not Man of Steel: The Last of Us, the latest game by Naughty Dog, a team most recently known for the Uncharted series.

It’s also a video game that will have you in tears after the first half hour.

Understand, The Last of Us is a grownup’s video game. No, not because of the gore or language, but adult because it’s not childish. The game does away with many tropes associated with games in its genre and instead creates a story that feels genuinely new and, more than that, genuinely emotional and heartfelt.

The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. Like most stories in the genre, order has been lost. There are quarantine zones where martial law is in effect but, for the most part, it’s lawlessness. But what are the quarantine zones quarantined against? Not zombies per se, but rather people who’ve been infected by this weird fungus-like thing. It’s a great scenario for a video game: put us in control of a late-twenties/early-thirties man who carves a wave of destruction through the military and infected for some reason or other. Fantastic.

But writer/director Neil Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog are having none of that. You don’t play as some supersoldier and this isn’t some story about a hero shooting his way to victory. In fact, the first character you play as is a helpless teenage girl looking for her father in the middle of the night. For the rest you play as Joel. His hair is graying and he’s very, well, normal. He’s like John McClane from the original Die Hard: incredibly vulnerable. He’s just an ordinary guy without training, gadgets, or even a fitness regime. Joel’s job — and by proxy the player’s — is simply to smuggle a girl, Ellie, out of the quarantine zone. He’s not out to save the world.

It’s easy enough to have this in the narrative only for it to be disconnected from gameplay. After all, the Planet may be in danger but if Cloud and friends want to go on a few side quests to level up, what’s stopping them? Not so with The Last of Us. It forces you to think as Joel. The game doesn’t let you run into firefights guns blazing, if anything it will punish you. You never have enough ammo, nor do you have enough health. The game bucks the trend of letting your life regenerate: if you get hit you’ll have to scavenge items to restore it. This reinforces your feeling of vulnerability in fights. More often then not you’ll try to avoid conflict: it’s easier.

That said, conflict in the game is visceral. Naughty Dog lays on the blood and gore in their first M-rated game; even strangling an enemy from behind is punctuated by gargles and resistance. You feel every life you take. Violence is unrestrained, but it never quite feels gratuitous. There’s no glory in it. Joel’s comments in cutscenes touch on that idea, but more the it’s desperation of battle that the game instills in you. All this is without touching on the moments of pure terror that characterize an encounter with the infected Clickers.

But large sections of gameplay are without active conflict. Sometimes it just serves story. The Last of Us takes the medium of a video game and blends it with cinema and fully utilizes both aspects. All the gameplay I mentioned earlier is married beautifully with Neil Druckmann’s script and exceptional acting and animation from all involved. I’m only a few hours into the game, but the opening — which takes place on the eve of the outbreak, twenty years before the main game — is one of the most powerful moments of storytelling I’ve experienced in any medium.

 

WARNING: The following paragraphs contains SPOILERS for the game’s opening. If you’re like me and try to avoid any spoilers whatsoever, skip it.

 

The game quickly establishes the characters: Joel’s tired from work, he’s a single dad whose daughter stayed up late to give him an early birthday gift — a watch. If you’ve paid attention you’ll notice that nothing in the game’s marketing suggested that Joel had a daughter, and then it dawns on you that something has to happen to her. When you first take control of Joel the car he, his brother, and daughter were trying to escape town in has just been wrecked. Infected swarm around them and Sarah has broken her leg. In any other game you would play as the survivor shooting his way to safety while the girl limps behind. In The Last of Us you play as a father carrying his daughter to safety. You can’t fight, you can only run through town. You are the one carrying Sarah to safety, right now you are the father trying to protect his daughter. You feel immersed because it’s a video game; Joel’s goal has become yours.

Which makes Sarah’s death at the hands of a soldier when you’ve almost reached safety all the more painful.

You watch a phenomenal cutscene as Sarah dies in her father’s arms. You’re no longer in control, you can’t do anything. You feel that helplessness as Joel tearfully pleads with his daughter to live. And tears well in your eyes as you and Joel watch her die. You couldn’t protect her. You failed. Then the game cuts from Joel’s hopeless face to the opening credits.

That’s it, no more spoilers.

 

The Last of Us uses its interactive medium to immerse you into not only its world, but the emotions within. Like the conversation you can start with Ellie about an arcade game or the subtle glance Joel gives a familiar looking watch in a cutscene: the moments are easily missed, but so typical of The Last of Us’ storytelling. Druckmann and Naughty Dog aren’t talking down to you as a player or spelling everything out for you, and they certainly aren’t trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They’re telling a grownup story. When you watch someone you’ve spent the past ten minutes trying to protect die in your arms it hits you all the more.

This is the power of video games. This is the game that elevates the medium.

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Shakespearean Gateway Drug

Like most everyone who’s taken an English class, I’ve had my share of Shakespeare. I’ve read a handful of his plays, know the plots to a few more, and think I mostly understand what’s kinda going on (but clearly still miss a lot of it). That said, I’ve also seen Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet, and enjoyed both, so hey: Shakespeare. Thanks to Branagh’s films, though, I’ve had this appreciation for those long monologues and weird words without stage directions that make up a Shakespearean play.

Sometimes it seems that actually seeing something makes you appreciate it more. Take Joss Whedon’s new adaption of Much Ado About Nothing. I got the chance to see an early screening about a month ago (if you’re wondering: it’s phenomenal, go see it). What makes this movie particularly fun is that the script is pure Shakespeare. There’s no updating of the play, there’s no cutting out bits. It’s just Shakespeare.

Sure, that means you don’t quite follow everything (unless, y’know, Shakespeare’s your thing), but you get the point of the play. You can follow the plot well enough and you’ll catch most of the jokes (chalk that up to Whedon’s direction and the excellent acting). It’s all Shakespeare, but it’s made intelligible. Or more intelligible. Whatever. As it stands, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare presented as Shakespeare — not dumbed down — and watchable and understandable by people who normally wouldn’t watch Shakespeare. Familiar faces like Clark Gregg and Nathan Fillion (and BriTANick!) help ease you into the Bard’s story. You don’t have to have a Masters in Shakespearean Literature to get Much Ado. It’s there and it’s clear; there’s no attempt to snobbify it. And it just might get someone to pursue Hamlet or A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It’s a Shakespearean gateway drug, if you will.

Shakespeare isn’t the only tough thing to get into. Star Trek, as a whole, is a rather intimidating fandom. You have the original series, The Next Generation, a cornucopia of films, and a bunch of other tv series out there. There’s a lot. 2009’s Star Trek remade the universe so an outsider could jump into it. The recent follow-up, Into Darkness, delved deeper into Trek lore. It’s filled with shout outs and nods to prior works that get Trekkies’ approval, but also encourages newer viewers to investigate further. All the while it never alienates newcomers.

In fact, Into Darkness pulled this off magnificently thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting as the villain. His devoted fan following from Sherlock — a modern real-life retelling — wound up watching Into Darkness — a futuristic story about space exploration. In this case, Cumberbatch is the gateway drug. Coupled with J.J. Abrams’ storytelling, we receive an open invitation into a world we’d have needed a qualification for. Their efforts, like Joss Whedon’s helmsmanship of Much Ado About Nothing, simultaneously encourages and reassures potential viewers that even though what they’re about to watch may not be their usual fare, it probably won’t be that bad. In fact, it might actually be great.

To that effect, both Into Darkness and Much Ado About Nothing are fantastic films. They have that feeling of being for a specific group of people, yet are still remarkably accessible. Even if you still get thee and thy mixed up or thought Spock was that guy with the lightsaber, you’ll still enjoy these films. Heck, you might even try to find more like them.

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Heroic Motivation

I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:

Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?

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